Thu, July 6, 2023

Three Reasons to Love the New SAT

Everyone loves to hate the SAT, often for good reason. Taking this college entrance exam is to turning 17 what a colonoscopy is to turning 50, you know you have to do so, but no one is looking forward to it. And then there’s the College Board, who seems to have a mid-life crisis every ten years or so. The organization’s most recent growth pain officially hits in March of 2024 when high school Juniors will see the first ever online, computer adaptive SAT. Is the Digital SAT, the dSAT for short, just a new haircut and some fancy clothes, or is there really a new test under there?

Of course, the SAT is not the first test to go digital and adaptive. Both the GMAT and the GRE have been computer-based and adaptive for decades. Content changes aside (always a curious question with a test that’s meant to be standardized from one year to the next), what took them so long? The SAT impacts more than ten times the number of students and yet still relies on #2 pencils. When was the last time you chewed on one of those?

The GMAT, the GRE, and now the SAT have all gone adaptive because it is a smarter, more effective way to deliver a standardized exam. One million, seven hundred high school students took the SAT in 2022. Some of those kids struggled to crack a score of 1000 (the score range is 400-1600, the average in 2022 was 1050), while others were aiming for a perfect 1600. The SAT is designed to consistently separate high-scoring students from the low-scoring students, primarily for college admissions purposes. Whether this is the right or the wrong barrier to put in front of kids who wish to attend a prestigious college is, frankly, an essay for another time. For now, let’s look at the new test itself.

To start, a test designed for 1.7 million kids has to have questions appropriate for all 1.7 million of them. This makes for a very long test. High-scoring students will wade through piles of dross before they get to the questions designed for them while low-scoring students get entirely intimidated by questions that have no relevance to their college goals. We’ve all known this intuitively for years. In some shape or form, the SAT stinks for everyone!

Enter the adaptive test. On the dSAT, all students start with a first module that has a mix of easy, medium, and hard questions. If a student performs well, they immediately get a second module that is, on average, notably harder than the first. If the student performs poorly on the first, they get a second module that is substantially easier. Because the test is responsive and will home in on the right mix of questions for each student, the net result is a much shorter test – by almost an hour. Thus, high-scoring kids still get to strut their stuff on the hard questions, while kids likely to score in the mid to lower ranges avoid being entirely demoralized by arcane questions about trains leaving different stations at different times and passing each other on a coordinate plane. Since each student gets the right mix of questions for them, the test remains statistically valid and results remain consistent. If the test can do the same job in a third less time, it is just a better test. Wouldn’t you agree?

Next, let’s tackle a discussion of the online component of the test. If you are the kind of person who, like me, actually does still chew on #2 pencils, you need to be told this – the kids are already there. Online is where they live. They prefer it, by a lot. Pencils and bubble sheets make their hands hurt and, in their minds, belong to the days of chalkboards and desks with inkwells. The hold-up in online testing was always more about equity and access to computers than it was about test design. Now that the test is app-based and can be run on virtually any computer, all SATs will be computer-based and adaptive starting in the spring of 2024, and will likely remain so from there on out, or until we all end up in the metaverse.

Last, but not least, the new SAT has a lot to love for tutors, too. The SAT is still a standardized exam and standardization means predictability. Predictability means coachable. There are question types that will continue to be unfamiliar to many students, and all questions will still require skills that can be taught, mastered, and applied on test day. Despite what may have been efforts by the College Board to combat the need for tutoring, once again, SAT coaches have made the cut.

While the new test was in the works long before the pandemic, it is going live in the newly minted age of college admission test-optional practices. In the olden days (circa 2018), if you wanted your kids to go to a competitive college or university, they had no choice but to go for a top-shelf test score. How kids felt about the SAT (or ACT for that matter) was irrelevant. If colleges required testing, students were to take one exam or another, and a pricey test prep tutor was likely showing up at your door once a week. But then, you know, COVID-19.

Are college policies around “test-optional” really optional?  Again, an essay for another day, but as long as a student can apply to a bunch of good schools without submitting test results from a three and half hour exam that everyone hates, it seems more manageable all around. The old test versions were so high stakes and intimidating that it became somewhat of a cultural rite of passage. Now, student thinking goes, “What the heck? I’ll sit for a two and half hour test on my computer. If I don’t like the scores, I just won’t submit them, or I’ll apply somewhere else – I’m probably going to apply to fifteen different schools anyway.” Better yet, students think,” I’m going to get my scores back in plenty of time to do it all over again, if I’m so inclined.” It seems a funny little coincidence that just when kids can choose whether or not to take the SAT, the test becomes a lot nicer for kids to take. Imagine that.

All in all, the dSAT really is a smarter, more efficient exam. It is the right test for our current test optional moment, and it is still coachable by those tutors who are ready to embrace an online exam (not all are). It is important to note that the landscape of high-quality practice tests has changed too. Publicly released paper and pencil tests used to grow on trees and were easily available. Now, test prep professionals have to find and pay for computer-based, adaptive testing platforms that mimic the real thing. Also, the age-old question of taking the ACT versus SAT just got a lot more interesting, but that’s another essay for another day, too.

Neill Seltzer is a longtime veteran of the test prep business and a member of the Tutoring League of NYC. He has authored multiple books on the SAT and the GRE, run a number of tutoring companies and brought MindPrint Learning to the world of private tutoring. He is currently the co-founder and CEO of, a digital SAT test engine.

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